JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Diego Nuñez's office above
Restaurante "Isla Contoy," Río Lagartos, Yucatán, MÉXICO

November 20, 2006

GRASSHOPPER DISORIENTATION
Tuesday morning I was walking along the road to Las Coloradas when movement caught my eye in the weeds, and there was a rustling sound. At first my mind couldn't digest what I then saw and heard. The impression was of grass smeared heavily with something greasy, crumby and Tabasco-sauce red. The movement was diffuse and uncoordinated. There were fluttering sounds, and sounds like cellophane being rustled.

This disorientation lasted only a second or two but it was creepy enough to do for a long time. I took a picture of what I was looking at -- it's a 100 kb file so it may load slowly -- so see how long it takes your mind to make sense of it. The image is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061120g1.jpg.

I got closer, and details emerged. Grasshoppers, millions of them... A picture taken as close as I could get shows some at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061120g3.jpg.

Long-time readers may recall my December 5th, 2004 Newsletter when I reported that "a whole black cloud of grasshoppers (in the sky) was moving from east to west, a fast-moving cloud maybe 150 feet thick and a quarter mile wide, a dark river of grasshoppers stretching from horizon to horizon." You can read that whole report at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/locusts.htm.

I think that Tuesday I saw what could possibly be the beginning of something like that 2004 cloud of locusts.

In the close-up picture linked to above notice that though the grasshoppers themselves are fairly large their wings are only beginning to develop. The grasshoppers in the picture couldn't fly because their wings were only a third or a fourth as long as they'll eventually grow. In the picture, the wings are black with yellow rims.

Tuesday's mess of grasshoppers extended about 30 feet up the road and maybe ten feet into the grass. Across the road lay another concentration, that one a little longer and maybe 20 feet deep. Beyond these two well defined populations I didn't see a single other grasshopper.

Clearly there weren't enough grasshoppers here to form a cloud of locusts. However, if many other gatherings such as these dot the countryside then in a couple of weeks -- in early December, as in 2004 -- who knows whether or not the dark, sinuous clouds will rise into the sky again?

*****

LAUGHING FALCON
On this particular morning walk a new silhouette appeared atop a jagged snag of hurricane-splintered Red Mangrove. He was some kind of raptor, about the size of a Red- tailed Hawk, but perching upright. When I began walking closer he got spooked and flew off, keeping low and using quick, shallow wingbeats. Then I heard it, a not-too-loud but clearly nasal "Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah... "

One of The Three Stooges used to laugh like that, and here that laugh came at me on shimmering heat through the mangroves. It was the Laughing Falcon, HERPETOTHERES CACHINNANS. You can see what a distinctive bird he is at http://www.badboybirding.com/LAFA_05062002.htm.

My field guide says that one of this bird's calls, when engaged in dueting with another bird, sounds as if he's "breaking into maniacal laughter." I've not heard that one, but I suspect that its effect in a mid-afternoon mangrove would be worth experiencing.

One curiosity about Laughing Falcons is that despite their being falcons they don't soar. They like to keep close to the land. I also suspect that they like the subterfuge of perching at the tips tree snags and poles so as to make themselves look like continuations of the things they're sitting on.

Laughing Falcons are non-migratory and fairly commonly seen in a variety of habitats all the way from Mexico to Peru and northern Argentina.

*****

JACANA BIG-FOOT
Most days when I hike the highway across the mangroves south of town when I pass the semi-submerged grasslands usually I see a little flock of birds fly from one small, silvery pond to another. During the brief flight there's a pretty eruption of brightly yellow wings outlined in black, then upon landing the forms resolve into rich chestnut-red bodies edged in black, punctuated here and there with small outbreaks of bright yellow. What I'm seeing is Northern Jacanas, JACANA SPINOSA.

Jacanas are among my favorite birds, not only because of their pleasing colors but because I still remember my astonishment the first time I saw them from a bus window down in Tabasco south of here. It was one of those ancient, rickety buses they used to have, the riding atop of which was more civilized than riding inside, but that day I was inside because we'd just had a cloudburst and the land was gloriously, revolutionarily flooded.

This first jacana I ever saw was walking atop lily pads in a marsh. When the bird lifted his foot to pass from one pad to the next, I saw something that made me hit my forehead against the window glass trying to get a closer look: The bird's toes were simply outrageously long. They were long beyond all sense of proportion or apparent rationality. The bird seemed to possess feet constructed for another, much larger species. You can see the bird and his wonderful toes on a rather slowly loading page at http://www.tierradeaves.com/fran/galeria/DSCN6322.htm.

When I finally got to watch jacanas living their lives in their normal habitat the sense of those outlandish feet began revealing itself.

For, walking atop lily pads can be problematical. The problem is that if you weigh much more than a sparrow -- and jacanas are much larger than sparrows, 8-9 inches long -- the lily pads sink beneath you. Even from the bus from which I saw my first jacana I could see that as the bird walked from atop one pad to the next he was always leaving a sinking pad.

Having very long toes distributes weight across a broader surface area, thus focusing less weight on the pad immediately below you, so maybe it'll sink slower, or not sink at all. Long toes make sense for waterlily-pad walkers.

Northern Jacanas occur from Mexico and the Caribbean to western Panama, eating mostly aquatic insects, small fish, and miscellaneous vegetable matter. They are non-migratory, and build flimsy platform nests of leaves and grass on floating vegetation.

*****

NERITES IN THE MANGROVES
The other day Tom Eichhorst in New Mexico wrote to comment on something I'd written. At the end of his letter his signature revealed that he was the Editor of the American Conchologist, a journal dealing with what most people call seashells. I ended my reply to Tom by saying something like "I wish I had a conchologist down here because I'm seeing a remarkable community of snails or snail-like creatures at the water's edge in the mangroves, and some of the shells are amazingly ornate."

Tom wrote back admitting that he was an expert on just such organisms and he invited me to send photos for identification. Immediately I set off into the mangroves and photographed what I assumed to be at least half a dozen snail species. You can see one such photo at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/vitta_vi.jpg.

The organisms in that photo are submerged in about ¼-inch of clear water (see the fish in the upper, right corner?). Notice how some shells are black with white speckles, others are tan with zigzagging black lines, others are reddish with white dots, some have banding, etc. How many species would you estimate to be there?

Imagine my astonishment when Tom wrote back saying they were ALL "Virgin neritinas," NERITINA VIRGINEA. They are a special kind of snail known as a "nerite," belonging to the Nerite Family, the Neritidae, which embraces over 280 mostly tropical and sub-tropical coastal species. Sharp, closer images of a variety of shell designs are shown at http://microseashell.com/seashell/main/Neritidae/Vitta_virginea.htm.

Tom told me a lot about nerites, including this: They come in male and female organisms, the male having a penis near his right eye and tentacle. Despite their small size (about like peas) traditionally they served as a major food item for indigenous people, and still do in some underdeveloped countries. My Virgin neritinas (not virgins at all) have a life span of only two to three years, though most nerites live about five years, and one has been recorded surviving for over 20 years.

Finally, nerites possess a hard calcium "trap door" or operculum with which they can seal the hole from which their bodies extend from their shells. These doors protect the snails' soft parts, plus our intertidal- dwelling species can use them to seal in water while being exposed on rock surfaces during low tides. They can even slowly release small amounts of water around the operculum's edges to provide evaporative cooling.

Our Virgin neritinas are distributed from along the US Gulf Coast all through the Caribbean and along the South American Atlantic coast to central Brazil. In a paper Tom is about to publish he describes their habitat as "Brackish: on and under stones and vegetation in rivers and streams, especially near the mouth. Not found upstream of a point influenced by high tide or wave action." Mine were in the mangroves where saltwater poured into and out of the swamps through a cement culvert beneath a road.

*****

A NORTE AND A CLAPPER RAIL
Wednesday night a norte, or "norther," blew in bringing rain, cooler temperatures and overcast skies. It was hard to sleep that night not only because of storms but also because men roamed the streets until dawn laughing, joking and good-naturedly cursing at everything that did or didn't move. They were fishermen from other ports who'd come into shelter at Río Lagartos to ride out the storm. At dawn on Thursday the estuary was thick with colorful rust-buckets tugging at their anchor lines and bristling bamboo poles and antennas.

One of our nortes is no more than a cold front that already has passed through North America, crossed the Gulf of Mexico, and now involves us. On internet weather maps it's easy to watch these systems descend upon us. Some peter out before they hit us but others ram on through, all the way into Guatemala to our south.

After so many days of heat and humidity, Thursday's unrelenting, house-corner-whistling wind and cooler temperatures was grand. I walked alongshore beside boats bobbing like corks on the choppy water. I wore a sweater with a hood and was amazed when I saw on my thermometer that it was still 80°. It sure felt blustery, though, almost wintry, to me.

The crazy weather seemed to disorient the birds, or maybe it put them into a festive mood, causing them to behave differently from usual. From my second-story room atop the restaurant I stepped onto the balcony/roof overlooking the estuary and ducked my head when a wind- tossed squadron of Magnificent Frigatebirds and Laughing Gulls flew over not five feet above my head, looking down at me just as I was looking up at them. Alongshore, Ruddy Turnstones swarmed over empty boats like pigeons on park sidewalks, pecking at whatever looked edible. How strange seeing a creature so exquisitely adapted to pebble flipping on rocky beaches lollygagging among an animation of brightly painted boats tied up at shore!

Out in the mangroves, right at the road's edge, I came upon a Clapper Rail with a crab in his beak. It was 2 PM, a time I'd not expect a Clapper Rail to be running around in full view. However, there he was and he just looked at me as his crab frantically wiggled his legs, looked at me fairly unconcernedly, as if all that wind, and all that shaking and whooshing and wave-action and wave-froth tumbling across the road and my unsteadiness in the wind somehow abolished the threat always attending me on normally hot, sunny days.

How nice that every now and then these nortes blow in changing everything around for a few days. I found it very acceptable to be looked at by a Clapper Rail as if I were no more menace than the Red Mangrove heaving next to me.

Clapper Rails are fairly large, gray-brown, short-necked, long-billed and long legged creatures with uselessly short tails, and this one seemed less interested in flying than running through the mud. You can see one at http://www.dbc.uci.edu/~pjbryant/biodiv/birds/gruiformes/220117.htm.

*****

SALICORNIA
These mangrove swamps fill with salty water at high tide. In fact, there's a large array of evaporation and salt-crystallizing ponds not far to the east, near the town of Las Coloradas, where the Maya have been producing salt for thousands of years.

It's not surprising, then, that some unique-looking plants are found here highly adapted to salty conditions. One of them, a 15-inch high clump of which I pass daily on my morning walks, looks like a big cluster of many- jointed, slender, green, upward-pointed fingers. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/salicorn.jpg.

The plant is SALICORNIA BIGELOVII, sometimes called "glasswort" and sometimes "pickleweed." Pickleweed is a good name because the plant is succulent as a pickle from a jar, and salty-tasting. I just call them salicornias, their scientific name derived from Greek roots meaning "salt-horn," the "horn" being the skin, which can be salty when you lick it.

This plant looks like it's all stem. Its leaves have been reduced to sheathes that don't look leaflike at all, and its tiny flowers remain sunken in the fleshy stem-joints. When you see the swollen stems you can't avoid thinking of the fingers of someone with water-retention problems, who has slipped up and eaten too much salt. Both plants and animals apparently have to deal with a basic fact for living things on Earth: If salt builds up in your system, your body has to gorge itself with water to deal with it.

Salicornias are now placed in the Amaranth Family, which makes sense when you remember that both salicornias and amaranths produce tiny flowers, the ovaries of which generally possess only one compartment producing a single seed.

*****

BALSAM-PEARS
It was quite something a few years ago when I was a hermit in Mississippi occasionally passing entire months not saying a single word to anyone -- but being connected to the Internet by wires strung through the trees. As I developed the EarthFoot.Org ecotour site I found myself in daily communication with small-scale ecotour operators all over the world. One of my favorites, someone with whom I exchanged letters almost daily for years, until he died, was a young gay man in Bangladesh, Rengyu.

One day he told me that since I tended to sauté so many homegrown vegetables during morning campfire-breakfasts I absolutely needed to grow "Bitter Gourd." Yes they were bitter but if sautéed them correctly with other vegetables they could lend a homey, philosophical flavor pleasing not only to the palate but also to the soul. I acquired seed and what grew from them was what you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/momordic.jpg.

That image shows Balsam-pear, MOMORDICA CHARANTIA, a member of the Cucumber Family. Its yellow flower, visible in the image at the lower right, is similar to that of a cucumber vine. Its pointed but otherwise egg-shaped fruit is brightly yellow-orange and you can see that at maturity it splits open revealing vividly red, glistening seeds. The picture was taken right down the street from where I'm staying now. I've found Balsam-pear growing as a weed throughout the Yucatan.

Many varieties of Balsam-pear -- Rengyu's "Bitter Gourd" -- are available, each with its distinctive flavor. Good cooks specializing in curries grow a variety of them. The bitter, yellow-orange "rind" is what's used, not the pretty seeds.

I find our wild Yucatan fruits disappointingly not-so- bitter. In fact, they are so bland that I don't bother picking them even when I can prepare my morning campfires.

Still, the plant with is eye-catching fruit is worth knowing simply because it's such a conspicuous part of the flora. Of course it's an introduced weed here, an invasive originating in the Old World tropics.

My books report that in the Yucatan people traditionally have used either the root or the leaves for preparing an aphrodisiac, the leaves for a potion against intestinal worms, and the fruit in a cataplasm against itch, sores and burns.

*****

AN ACACIA LIGNOTUBER, AND RUMINATIONS THEREUPON
All along the side of the road crossing the mangroves on the south side of town currently there are knee-high heaps of macheted weeds and bushes maybe fifteen feet apart. Atop one such a heap one day I found the item shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061120l.jpg.

That's a lignotuber. A lignotuber is a tuber-like woody growth some tree and bush species produce. In mature plants the lignotuber is entirely or mostly subterranean. It not only stores food for future growth but also provides a sprouting area for new shoots when aboveground shoots or trunks are destroyed, particularly by fire. My lignotuber lay atop a pile of acacia debris, so I'm guessing it's an acacia lignotuber, possibly of Acacia dolicostachya. On the internet I can confirm that some acacia species do produce lignotubers, but the most famous lignotuber producers are eucalyptus species.

Lignotubers are worth thinking about in themselves, but as I walked on that day I found myself cogitating on the weed-heaps. For, I knew exactly how they'd gotten there.

At the crack of dawn a few days earlier a pickup truck had arrived on that road, several men with machetes had piled out, and they'd spent the day cutting weeds and bushes away from the pavement. You can imagine that this is stooping-over, hard-hacking work that goes on the whole day, and leaves a man exhausted but not very well paid. However, since jobs are hard to find here there are always men ready to sign up.

Why don't the road-maintenance people just use herbicides or mowers the way they do up North? One guy with a big bush-hog could cut in a few minutes what this machete crew takes a whole day to accomplish. Part of the answer is the cost of herbicides, maintenance and spare parts for bush-hogs, but I'm told that the greater answer may be that the government's priority of employing people is greater than its interest in buying herbicides and machine parts.

In other words, the government has made an interesting decision:

It's decided that sometimes an "inefficient" method is preferable to an "efficient" one. Maybe it's even thinking in terms of "the dignifying effects of work."

The fellows here swinging their machetes don't seem to disdain their work just because chemicals or a bush hog might do it faster or more even. They always strike me as proud, lusty guys glad to have a job, and there sure aren't many fat, sick-looking, or depressed ones among them.

My lignotuber train of thought finally brought me to this question: If the hows and whys of "work" sometimes can be defined so that they favor lowly workers instead of industries and investors, then why can't we be similarly insightful and generous when defining what "work" is in the first place?

Our culture wholeheartedly embraces the notion that "work" is what you get paid for.

I regard that as a deadly, short-sighted concept, for it means that many of us end up performing tasks that destroy our environment, our societies, and our own bodies and minds.

Why shouldn't our concept of "work" be rooted instead in this concept:

"Work" is what benefits and nurtures the global Web of Life, which includes humanity in all its dignified and beautiful forms.

If such a definition were accepted, society would reward teachers more than bankers, and biologists more than weapon manufacturers. In fact, some of the people who now are among the most highly paid among us might be sent to jail for destroying so thoughtlessly and self-servingly the limited natural resources we all need for staying alive.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim